Laurence Sterne's insanely digressive 18th century novel "Tristram Shandy" once looked about as likely to be filmed as "Finnegans Wake" or the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Cheating flagrantly, helmer Michael Winterbottom has pulled off the trick -- sort of -- with the wickedly playful "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story."

This review was updated on Jan. 12, 2006.

Laurence Sterne’s insanely digressive 18th century novel “Tristram Shandy” once looked about as likely to be filmed as “Finnegans Wake” or the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Cheating flagrantly, helmer Michael Winterbottom has pulled off the trick — sort of — with the wickedly playful “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.” While its anarchic spirit is closest to helmer’s “24 Hour Party People,” pic’s film-within-a-film structure makes it yet another genre ticked off for the protean Englishman. Upmarket auds worldwide will enjoy the game, although only Brits will get many of pic’s best in-jokes about star Steve Coogan, here playing a version of himself.

Sterne’s novel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent.,” published in installments from 1759-67, is accurately summarized in this almost adaptation as “the postmodern classic which was written before there was any modernism to be post about.” Its eponymous hero and narrator, who would be diagnosed as having attention-deficit disorder these days, gets so bogged down with digressions his character isn’t born until the fourth and last volume, which ends with him barely out of infancy.

Although Tristram’s personality soaks every page, the main characters are really his forward-thinking but bossy gentleman dad Walter Shandy (played here by Coogan, who also plays Tristram and a character called “Steve Coogan”), his mother Elizabeth (Keeley Hawes, also playing “Keeley Hawes”), and his Uncle Toby (Rob Brydon, ditto). There’s also a colorful household of servants and hangers on.

From the start, semi-improvised script credited to Martin Hardy makes it clear the parts straight from the book are scenes being filmed by a contempo film crew working on location in England. In the film’s film, Coogan as Tristram weaves through the action and speaks straight-to-camera, explaining the relevance and place in the story of the various scenes shown, such as Uncle Toby’s injury at the 1695 Siege of Namur and Tristram’s own conception and birth.

Two reels in, pic jumps up pretty much permanently into the framing narrative. Here, the film-within-the-film is being directed by Mark (Jeremy Northam, seemingly doing a vague impersonation of Winterbottom himself). The producers are wrangling with the financiers over the budget, and egotistical star “Steve Coogan” wants his character’s shoes to be taller than those of “Rob Brydon” and frets over their comparative proportions of screen time.

When the crew retires to the hotel, Coogan is told that a tabloid paper is about to run an item about his fling with a lap dancer, paralleling a similar scandal involving the real Coogan and two lap dancers that hit the Blighty headlines recently.

Increasing Coogan’s woes, “X Files” star Gillian Anderson agrees over the phone in a hilarious split-screen sequence to take the role of Widow Wadman, which will only up Brydon/Toby’s prominence in the film. Coogan also struggles to resist temptation in the shape of runner Jennie (Naomie Harris), whose brainy rants about the novel throughout conveniently help viewers unfamiliar with Sterne get up to speed.

Running joke has contempo characters bemoaning fact that the “Tristram” movie isn’t covering various key parts of the book — which are therefore covered just by being discussed or quickly inserted, for instance by making the screen go black when the film-set characters discuss the book’s famous black page.

Ultimately, however, pic manages to be fairly faithful to the ludic, humanist spirit if not the letter of Sterne’s tome and offers a portrait of two similar bickering, ego-ridden extended “families”: the Shandys and entourage, and the film crew itself.

The biggest differences between Winterbottom and company’s “Shandy” and Sterne’s is that the former has a more rounded out ending, and there is a faint but traceable arc to the Coogan character, who transforms from self-centered jerk to slightly less selfish jerk. Even so, Coogan deserves kudos for letting lines of reality blur so much here, even down to the admission that, despite “Around the World in 80 Days,” he’s barely known in Hollywood.

Winterbottom’s distinctively deadpan, handheld helming style lets the jokes fall where they will and keeps the thesps on just-right underplayed pitch.

Craft contributions from Winterbottom’s regular collaborators, such as lenser Marcel Zyskind (showing off what high-definition cameras can do), and editor Peter Christelis, uphold sprightly spirit of the script.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

U.K.

Production

A Picturehouse release (in U.S.) of a BBC Films presentation in association with EM Media, Revolution Films of a Revolution Films production, in association with Baby Cow Prods., Scion Films. (International sales: The Works, London.) Produced by Andrew Eaton. Executive producers, Kate Ogborn, Julia Blackman, Jeff Abberley, David M. Thompson, Tracey Scoffield, Henry Normal. Co-producers, Anita Overland, Wendy Brazington. Directed by Michael Winterbottom. Screenplay, Martin Hardy, based on a novel by Laurence Sterne.

Crew

Camera (color, HD-to-35mm, widescreen), Marcel Zyskind; editor, Peter Christelis; music, Michael Nyman, Erik Nordgren, Nino Rota; production designer, John Paul Kelly; art director, Emma MacDevitt; costume designer, Charlotte Walter; sound (Dolby Digital), Stuart Wilson; supervising sound editor, Joakim Sundstrom; stunt coordinators, Andreas Petrides, Gerard Naprous; assistant director, Barrie McCulloch; casting, Wendy Brazington. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 12, 2005. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Tristram Shandy, Walter Shandy, "Steve Coogan" - Steve Coogan Toby Shandy, "Rob Brydon" - Rob Brydon Elizabeth Shandy, "Keeley Hawes" - Keeley Hawes Susannah, "Shirley Henderson" - Shirley Henderson Dr Slop, "Dylan Moran" - Dylan Moran Parson - David Walliams Mark - Jeremy Northam Jennie - Naomie Harris Jenny - Kelly Macdonald Debbie - Elizabeth Berrington Ingoldsby - Mark Williams Simon - James Fleet Joe - Ian Hart Gary - Kieran O'Brien Patrick Curator, Parson Yorick - Stephen Fry Widow Wadman, "Gillian Anderson" - Gillian Anderson TV Interviewer - Anthony H. Wilson

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